North-South tensions in Sudan have existed since the country’s independence in the 1950s. However, in the 1980s, a guerrilla movement in the south, SPLA, started what is commonly referred to as the Second Civil War in Sudan (1983-2005). With the South’s marginalisation from the central government and intense reprisals against the southern people by Khartoum, the conflict rapidly took a north-south dimension with arab muslims and black africans. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed, and in 2011 a referendum was held granting independence and establishing the Republic of South Sudan. Conflict has however remained in the region, including within South Sudan, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur.

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«While around 800 guerrilla soldiers from Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) cross the Bahr-el Ghazal River by foot, their commanders and I follow them in a canoe. The SPLA guerillas in the upper Western Nile district belong to the Nuer tribe and all of them have the traditional pattern of scars made on their faces after reaching the age of 12. They are certainly an impressive sight, carrying everything from AK-47s, RPG-7s, and a white plastic chair for their commander to sit on, over the wide, nearly two meter deep river.

SPLA’s commander in this area of Sudan, Peter Gadet, has planned a huge ambush against the road that the government is constructing from the oil field around Mayom to the well-defended garnision in Wangkai.

The SPLA have some 800 guerrilla soldiers hidden along the road. It is impossible to detect any fear or even tension among the young guerrilla soldiers who wait patiently at dawn, just ahead of the bloody battle. Some of them are sleeping or rest in the grass, others sit and talk using low voices, a few are picking wild berries from a tree. After about two hours of waiting, we hear the noise of the convoy and then the frightening, spitting thunder of machine guns.

The bullets rip off branches, leaves and parts of trees, whistling through the air above us, while we press our faces down into the mud. Then, after a few minutes of silence, there are two explosions before the guerrillas attack with everything they have. The following 50 minutes can only be described as an authentic hell with bullets, grenades, rockets, uncertainty, and a feeling of confusion.

The sound of battle is slowly quieting down, broken by lonely outbursts of automatic fire, then a strange silence, before an enormous bang. This is followed by pandemonium when the two tanks explode in huge flames in the forest. It’s a great victory for the guerrillas who only lost around ten men in the battle.

However, the government army will soon take a bloody revenge for the humiliating defeat on the road, not against the SPLA, but on the civilian population who are easier targets and who have paid the highest price during the civil war in Sudan»

Peter Strandberg | Bahr El-Ghazal, Sudan | 2001